William Kamkwamba, ‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,’ will speak in Park City
When William Kamkwamba was 15, he built a windmill out of scrap materials and bicycle parts that provided power to his farmland home in Malawi.
Kamkwamba then expanded his windmills to pump water and start irrigating the crops that had suffered because of the drought that was ravaging East Africa at the time.
Kamkwamba will tell his story, which is the subject of his autobiography “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” and its film adaptation, at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 9, at the Park City Library’s Jim Santy Auditorium, 1255 Park Ave. The book is the subject of the 2019 Park City Education Foundation’s One Book, One Community program.
In addition, Park City Film and Sundance Institute will host a free screening of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s 2019 award-winning adaptation of the same title that premiered at the Sundance Film Festivalat 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 7, at the Jim Santy Auditorium. (See accompanying story).
“Part of my talk will be about me, and part of it will be about what people are going through all over the world,” Kamkwamba said during a phone interview from New York. “I will discuss what some of these people are doing to help their communities.”
Kamkwamba said he was approached by a woman, who would eventually become his agent, to write “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” in 2007.
“She read an article about my story in the Wall Street Journal, and met with me to see if I was interested in writing a book,” Kamkwamba said. “I was interested because I wanted to share my story with the rest of the world. I knew there were some people who are going through some difficulties that may be inspired by my story to do something in their lives.”
Kamkwamba hesitated to take on the project at first because his grasp of English wasn’t very good. So the woman connected him with Bryan Mealer, author of “The Kings of Spring” and “Muck City.”
The positive response to the book, which was published in 2009, surprised Kamkwamba.
“I was just hoping it would inspire some people, but then I got messages from people who lived all over the world telling me they were inspired by my story and started working on different projects that would help their communities,” he said. “There were also messages from people who told me the story inspired them to go back to school to get engineering degrees. And it was very exciting to me to read those stories.”
Kamkwamba, who earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Dartmouth in 2014, said he was always a curious boy who wanted to learn and understand how different things worked.
Before he was old enough for elementary school, he asked some people how a car worked.
“They told me, ‘You put in a key, start the car and it drives,’” Kamkwamba said. “And I said, ‘I know that, but how does the gas turn the engine to drive?’”
As he got older, Kamkwamba would experiment and take apart mechanical items such as radios to understand how they worked.
“At one point, I thought there were tiny people inside my parents’ radio who would speak, so one day I opened it to see what was inside,” he said. “Through that I learned how to fix radios. I think I ended up messing up two of my parents’ best ones.”
While Kamkwamba was learning about the mechanics of radios, he began to realize he didn’t want to become a farmer like his father.
“The thing about my village is the people who are farmers do it because of circumstances, not choice,” he said. “Now, I don’t hate farming. I love it, but I didn’t want to become a farmer like my father, so I thought if I could get an education, I would be able to do anything that I wanted to with my life.”
Kamkwamba liked working with his hands and wanted to become a mechanical engineer.
When famine waylaid his plans of continuing his education, he began visiting his village’s library, and that’s when he found a photo of a windmill in a textbook called “Using Energy,” which was published in 1995 by Mary D. Atwater for MacMillan McGraw-Hill.
“I thought about how the windmill could pump water and generate electricity,” Kamkwamba said. “And it was the way it could pump water that attracted me. I thought I could use the windmill to pump water and start irrigation and solve the problem my village was facing at that time.”
In 2013, filmmaker Ben Nabors approached Kamkwamba to make “William and the Windmill,” a documentary that would eventually win the 2013 South By Southwest Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature.
“That was exciting to me, because when I was writing the book, I knew many people wouldn’t have a chance to read it,” he said. “Then I thought if there was a film, more people could see the story and get inspired.”
Nearly two years ago, filmmaker Chiwetel Ejiofor approached Kamkwamba with his plans to make “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” into a feature film premiering at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
“That was also surprising, because when I was building the windmill, I was only addressing the problem and trying to find a solution to what my village was facing at the time,” Kamkwamba said. “I never thought that one day people would be making a movie about me and my story.”
One of the things Kamkwamba loved about the film was that it was filmed on location in his hometown.
“That was important to me and the people who lived there,” he said. “I also loved they combined the language that I speak with the English language.”
In addition to talking about his book and what people around the world are doing to help their communities, Kamkwamba will shed some light on what he’s doing today.
“One thing I always say is, ‘Talent is universal, but opportunity is not,’ so the biggest thing I’m focusing on is building an innovation center in Malawi where young people can visit to connect with professionals in the field they are interested in working in,” he said. “Whenever I think about my background, I remember that I didn’t have an expressway to go to where I could think and build. So this is a way for me to give back to the community and create space where thinkers can think and design solutions that will address the problems they are assessing in their own communities.”
Kamkwamba downplays the idea that he’s a hero.
“Most of the challenges we face in the world today are somehow connected, and I feel we as humans need to share the responsibility to address them,” he said. “Instead of a hero, I feel there is a part I have to play in the world in all of this.”
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